15 May 2011

Cua Lo Beach

For some beach time this summer, I traveled with some friends for an extended weekend at the beginning of May to the port city of Vinh and spent afternoons at Cua Lo beach. This was one of the most accessible beaches I'd seen in Vietnam, and with beautiful weather at the start of summer, the wide, shallow waters were teeming with children building mud-sand castles, pick-up soccer matches, a fleet of kites, and huts serving up piles of steaming fresh seafood and banh da crackers. Click here for 12 photos.

Snapshot of a Village in Thanh Hoa

As one of my last trips in Vietnam (for a while -- click here for 32 photos), in late April I traveled with a friend to his home province of Thanh Hoa, a flat agricultural province along the north-central coast. The trip was short, but my friend showed me his life and family in that roadside small town. We visited the local morning market, where every saleswoman seemed to be a distant relative, and the seafood was abundant and fresh. Everyone tells me how much more delicious the food tastes in the village than in Hanoi, because the travel time is less -- I agreed as we ate piles of mussels, shrimp, fish, and snails. I noticed the pleasant lack of honking motorbikes, and could actually hear the chickens scratching for bugs in the farmyard. The neighbors laughed at my lack of skills when I try to help distribute the shredded wet green tobacco onto the bamboo drying racks. We borrowed someone's motorbike to see the long, sandy beach and the fishermen and women bringing the boats in for high tide.

My friend paid his respects at several family cemetery plots, near the market and near the river dike. Several members of the family have done well with investments and their work and have build colorful new concrete houses; others are surviving on their own physically demanding agricultural production. Though there are impressive dikes along the nearby river, and the irrigation canals are laced intricately among the fields, the river has flooded its banks within the past year or so, damaging homes and rice and tobacco crops. Even when it does not flood, the waters near the house are turning briny -- not from seawater seepage, but because some farmers have converted their fields into saltwater shrimp farms because the shrimp bring much bigger profits than rice or the water pipe tobacco (thuoc lao) grown here. People were happy to see my friend home to visit, and ask about their relatives also working in Hanoi. We carried several bags of fresh food with us on the bus back to Hanoi.

29 March 2011

Hidden National Parks

Vietnam's long S-shape is caused partly by the natural boundary of lush mountain ranges along its borders. And although the rates of new development (and deforestation) are rapid in those areas, a number of national parks and biosphere reserves have been set up. For two March weekends, I traveled to two very different parks that the guidebooks hardly mention, but which I can barely stop talking about. Click here to see 36 photos from Pu Mat in Nghe An (some taken by C.), and click here to see about 36 photos from Phong Nha Ke Bang (some taken by D&N).

Pu Mat National Park

The motorbike ride from my friend's family's home in coastal Nghe An province up Highway 7 is easy-going, with ducks, cows, rice paddies, and rivers giving way to gentle karst-formed hills. Even though the visitors center in Con Cuong told me I needed two days' prior notice to visit the virgin rain forest and ethnic minority villages deep inside the park, they also told me I'd need three days of hiking to get there. With just the weekend, I was satisfied to explore the "buffer zone" between highway 7 and the park. We met only park rangers on the bamboo-tree-lined road to the Khe Kem waterfalls, shrouded in mist, and farmers with large sugarcane knives hanging from their belts would smile and point the way to the springs (no sign on the road) that bubble up from a pond at the base of a hill, with current regular enough to turn several irrigation waterwheels. Sunday afternoon, when we stopped for lunch along the small road leading through villages and flooded fields, the sun came out and the frogs started croaking loud enough to echo off the houses. Back at the beach/harbor town of Dien Chau before dark, we went to the beach and had a dinner of steamed crabs and snails before the bus ride back to Hanoi.

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park

Unlike Pu Mat, which many Hanoians haven't heard of, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is a well-known UNESCO World Heritage site, mostly for its National-Geographic-featured world-record caves. We were outfitted with trekking bikes and kayaks by the friendly folks at Rustic Chay Lap, and spent the first afternoon using the Ho Chi Minh Highway as our bike trail, stopping at another spring that starts a river out of nowhere, and biking through steep karst hills covered in green to reach Thien Duong (Paradise) Cave, a breathtaking cavern with well-illuminated formations along 1000 meters (the other 30 km are off limits for now).

The bike ride back to Chay Lap was marked by an especially large full moon and bats skimming awfully close to catch bugs. The next day, we explored the powder-blue waterways by kayak, with men and women fishing, water buffalo cooling off, and children playing. Napping to the sounds of chickens scratching in the yard, eating oranges we picked ourselves, sleeping in traditional wood houses at the foot of giant hills -- who would ever want to leave?

17 February 2011

Laos - Plain of Jars

While Vietnamese celebrated the coming of the lunar new year with their families, I traveled to Laos, re-visiting Luang Prabang -- albeit with a Mekong River seasonally lower than my visit in Sept. 2009 -- the Plain of Jars, and the captial, Vientiane. To see a selection of 36 photos, click here.

Across my home state of Nebraska, there are hundreds of simple black and silver plaques describing something that's not there -- usually, an event or building or town that is no longer there, overgrown with grass, crops, or a dirt road. The scene is beautiful in its own right, but I feel some comfort and safety that the plaque provides, straining to create meaning from what is not there.

The Plain of Jars in Laos has no plaques, no markers, no explanations of what happened there, though MAG has placed red and white path markers where they've cleared unexploded ordinance from the soil. The giant "jars" carved from boulders can't even be carbon-dated, and whoever -- or whatever -- created them left no record or trace of their purpose, the beliefs or authorities that moved them to carve. No sleek coffee-table books explain the mystery in quippy captions. French archeologists and legends hypothesize.

With no plaques to read, no guidebooks to buy, the mystery just lingers. With no satisfaction of solving the puzzle, or having it solved for me, my imagination explodes with options -- no multiple choice, no right or wrong, black or white, just possibility.

27 December 2010

Island Christmas

[Click here for all 38 photos]
The people of Quan Lan Island don't know how difficult they are to reach. They don't know, that even if Hanoi is only 100 miles away, I still had to take a bus, walk 1.5 miles to an unmarked pier, compete for a seat with two dozen other people on a twice-daily speed boat run, be sure not to get off at the first stop (wrong island), and then take a 10-mile ride in a three-wheeled mini-truck whose bounce was surely reminiscent of rides in a stagecoach. They don't know any of that.

They have miles of wide windswept whitesand beaches, almost completely untouched by humans, except for the detritus of the sea that lines any corners. Though ancient sandbars connect the hills to form a long, thin island that I easily explored on a rusty bicycle much too short for me, the villagers are quick to point out they are separate and distinct from the other parts of the island, with their own schools, piers, beaches, and turquoise waters.

Almost every house on the island is new or being renovated with income from tourism or remittances, and children are ubiquitous -- hunting for frogs in the marshes, catching eels for dinner, chasing dogs, or climbing trees. There was no trace of Hanoi's honking traffic or the island's summer crowds, just me and two miles of beach in either direction.

17 October 2010

See if you look this good at 1000 years

In the middle of the 10 days celebrating Hanoi's 1000th Birthday, there was a tragic fireworks accident during the unloading of the fireworks for the finale that killed several people. This is the only part of celebration that really made international headlines. My heart goes out the families of those killed. I also have mixed feelings about the limited amount of access that citizens of Hanoi had to various events--most venues were just not big enough or open enough to accommodate the 100,000s of people that wanted to participate. It makes me appreciate even more the kind of mass event planning that goes on for every sporting event in the US each weekend, or the masses that watched the Obama Inauguration.

But these photos show the fun side of the celebrations -- some of the most crowded, peaceful, and bedazzled street crowds, mostly not from Hanoi, lights and banners and flags along main thoroughfares, the more openly displayed heritage of the Hanoi Citadel, flower-bedecked sidewalks, calligraphy displays, views of the highways near Westlake, and images from artist Dao Anh Khanh's Life Tree light-and-sound structures.

A selection of 37 photos is available by clicking here.

16 August 2010

2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China

When most of us think of the World's Fair, we vaguely remember some story about that's where futuristic technologies --like elevators, or steel girding for skyscrapers -- made their debue, sometimes as fantasies ahead of finding practical applications. But the modern World Expo is a toy box of temporary architecture, a showcase for tourism, history, culture, and some innovations. (Click here for 39 photos from the Expo)

And so, while most of the Western world is hardly noticing, there on the banks of the Huang Pu River in Shanghai is a campus of dozens and dozens of exposition halls of varying sizes, being viewed by thousands of visitors every day for 5 months this year. The theme, related to creating sustainable cities, was ignored by many pavilions, turning them into tourist ads.

This was my only free weekend, and we wore our feet out walking through the areas. The lines were longest at the halls for the countries that put the most into their displays -- Germany, China, UK, US, even Kazakhstan had a long wait -- so we chose some of the less popular but still intriguing halls (and they were all air conditioned anyway): DPR Korea (North), Iran, Coca-Cola, Vietnam, Italy, and the hall of African countries. After October, all but the largest display halls will be dismantled.

As if the Expo wasn't a big enough draw, behold Shanghai, the concrete-glass-steel megacity that is a showcase of its own, showing off China's new glitz, less surprising though still outshining ancient Beijing. After the long day wandering the exhibition grounds, we recovered at the bar on the 87th floor of a skyscraper. (Click here for 27 photos of Shanghai)

Amazingly, we could see only city in all directions -- you can't see to the edge of town from that height--partly because it's so far away, and partly from the haze. Back on the ground the next day, we explored some low-level two-story neighborhoods that felt a little more familiar, spared the wrecking ball by their gentrification.

24 July 2010

Temples of Angkor - Cambodia

After hearing about the temples of Angkor Wat during my adventures in India, in May I traveled to one of the most well-known temple complexes in the world, near Siem Reap, Cambodia. Built over several decades in and around the 10th Century, the temples were mostly abandoned as the Khmer kingdom declined in the 14th Century, and rediscovered only 500 years later, after annual rainfall and generations of rainforest trees had enveloped the temples.

I spent a lot of time here inside my own imagination--not just Indiana Jones fantasies, but also wondering how, 1000 years ago, monks and temple carvers traveled from India and Burma to what is now Cambodia to design and build such massive religious monuments. I really enjoyed our guide's summaries reminding me of the Hindu stories (many from the Ramayana also very popular in southern India) and the basics of Buddhism, both of which were depicted in the temples depending on the era.

Even though UNESCO World Heritage status has brought hoards of tourists, it has also brought the funds needed to protect the sites from (more) looters. Many of the sites have been cleared of their trees, but we found a few that were still mostly unrestored. Click here for 46 photos of temples such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Banday Srei, and my favorite, Beng Mealea.